As the US gears up to wage a protracted war against terrorism,
civil libertarians are preparing for a different kind of war - a
legal struggle here in the US to preserve America's most basic
freedoms. The ultimate battleground in that war will be the US
Supreme Court, which today begins its new term.
It is still too early to predict what role the nation's highest
court will play in the unfolding drama. There are no cases
currently on the docket that directly relate to the threat of
terrorism. But it is only a matter of time, analysts say.
"We can be sure that litigation is going to come out of this,"
says Mark Tushnet, a constitutional scholar at Georgetown
University Law Center in Washington.
In the meantime, with two potential landmark cases already on the
docket, the court is showing no sign of seeking a lower profile in
the wake of last year's controversial decision ending the 2000
Instead, it is full speed ahead as the justices prepare for the
In addition to agreeing to decide the constitutionality of
school-voucher programs and whether to declare a constitutional ban
on capital punishment for the mentally retarded, the justices have
agreed to resolve a wide range of other legal disputes.
The list includes an affirmative-action plan for minority
contractors, attempts to regulate child pornography on the
Internet, and whether private-property owners are entitled to
compensation when their land is the subject of a temporary
moratorium on development.
With 49 cases accepted so far, the court docket for the 2001-
2002 term is still very much a work in progress, with the justices
expected to grant appeals in 20 to 30 additional cases.
At this time last year, the court's most significant case in
2000, Bush v. Gore, wasn't even on the legal horizon. The same
dynamic may come into play in months ahead, as the US braces for an
all-out war on terrorism.
Legal analysts will be watching closely to see what role the high
court may carve out for itself. Will the justices move to rein in
possible government attempts to violate long-cherished civil
liberties in the name of protecting national security? Or will they
issue opinions that greatly expand the government's ability to
identify and root out suspected terrorists?
The war on terrorism will likely involve a full range of other
laws and constitutional protections. These include: the indefinite
detention of aliens by immigration authorities working closely with
the FBI, the ability to introduce foreign intelligence information
as evidence in a US criminal trial, and rules surrounding when and
to what extent surveillance may be conducted against suspected
terrorists and those with whom they associate in the US. …